With his new film Rust and Bone, French director Jacques Audiard returns to play in the same sandbox where he created his last film, the intense prison drama A Prophet. You could call them cousins, both films about trying to eke out a life in the margins of society, but Audiard goes about it in a slightly different way here than he did in his previous movie: Unlike Malik in A Prophet, Rust and Bone‘s Stephanie (Marion Cotillard) doesn’t begin the story in the margins; instead she is marginalized by a horrific accident at work, a small miscalculation that leaves her a double amputee. The loss of her legs becomes her movable prison.
Stephanie is a whale trainer and performer in a sea park in the south of France – a place much like SeaWorld here in Orlando. The orcas can be unpredictable, and the difference between a great show and calamity can be measured in inches with such large creatures. In the middle of a routine one day, something goes wrong. One of the whales slides onto the platform incorrectly and brings the whole thing down with him – on top of Stephanie, leaving her afloat in a cold pool of her own blood. There is no blame to apportion, it just happens, but Stephanie’s life will never be the same.
Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) meets Stephanie before the accident. He’s an immigrant from Belgium with a 10-year-old son, Sam (Armand Verdure), and he’s always lived life in the margins. He is poor; he crashes on his sister’s couch and works at odd jobs that don’t pay enough to provide for Sam. Ali and Stephanie meet when he is working as a bouncer at a club, where he pulls her out of a fight that she caused, rescuing her from harm. But their places in life are too different for Stephanie to see it as anything but a moment of calculated gallantry. She sees Ali as nothing but a tough guy who she can use to scare her abusive boyfriend.
But she is sunk in depression after her accident, unable to keep a connection to her old life alive. Suddenly, Ali is on her level – or rather, she is suddenly on his level – and the two begin to sort out their shortcomings. For Ali, it’s continuing the tough-guy persona as he reluctantly falls into a bloody back-alley kickboxing circuit, where he excels. The pay for winning is great, providing him with the means to a better life for his son, but the frenzy he builds himself up to for the fights keeps real growth in his life on pause. Stephanie grows, seemingly by force of will, but she also takes some painful steps back as the relationship she has with Ali evolves and plays on the edge between dependency and something more.
I suppose I could be excused for initially feeling somewhat cynical about the film, which, like Monster orThe Reader, seems to be designed less as a film than as a role to give Cotillard a chance at an Oscar run. It didn’t reach that objective – Cotillard was snubbed – but it’s still a compelling character piece framed impeccably by Audiard, whose flair for beautiful imagery comes to the fore here. So it works anyway, even if in spite of itself.